We are on the ferry to Rathlin in Northern Ireland. The locals say it quickly and enunciate the ‘L’ so it sounds like rattlin’. Mum is telling me a story of my ancestors – Catherine McCaig was born on the island in 1821, she married Harry Begley and moved to Port Stuart, they had a daughter, Annie (my Grandma Bear’s grandmother) and several other children.
In 1851 the family immigrated to Victoria, Australia (as it would have been known to them), and Mum is hazy on the details of where they lived and what they did except that they got deeply into debt. She describes Harry as feckless and wonders if he was alcoholic or a gambler. Eventually Annie was sold into marriage with the owner of the local saloon bar, James Cranston (from Ireland via America), to try and settle the debt.
We have an account of James and Annie from an interview with their son, Samuel, in 1986. He describes James as a ‘hard man’ with a quick temper while Annie is ‘meek and gentle, willow thin with grey eyes and reddish hair.’ James was 20 years older than Annie, treated her as a servant and abused her. They had seven children, including my great-grandfather, Charles Edward Cranston.
Mum is telling me all this with rage and disgust. It is hard to hear. It is not surprising, we all know that historically women were treated as property, but knowing the detail of how it is part of my family history brings it home anew.
I arrive at the island awash with grief and rage. All the stories and experiences of the last week are colliding and compounding within me. When you treat the land as a resource it is only a matter of time before you treat other humans that way. Power and control and domination, the mindset of colonisation, a shit storm brewed in Britain by the Romans and the Saxons and the Angles and the Normans for a thousand years and then smeared across the world.
This is my history; I am part of the smear of shit. As I mourn the lack of wild forest in my ancestral homelands, I feel deep gratitude and connection to the forests of my birth country. Here I am more aware than ever before of how the Australian bush has shaped me, shaped my soul. I am humbled and grateful and devastated because of course my presence comes at the expense of first nations people. The connection I feel to my birth country, the healing of my ancestral line that is being lived through me, is predicated on colonisation. I do not know how to reconcile this.
I ring Mel back in Australia but she is too busy to talk, engaged in the sacred business of taking people out to surrender themselves to the land, she suggests I take my grief to the land.
Rathlin is good for walks so I set out. Before long I come across an older woman (about Mum’s age) standing in the road. I ask for directions, she gets me a map and gives me specific instructions. I ask if she knows any McCaig’s and she does, it’s a common island name. She gives me her card and tells me to call her when I get back from my walk, she may be able to find a connection. Her card says ‘Rathlin Marina – volunteer meeter and greeter.’
Then I walk. I take pictures of wild flowers, I talk to the cows and the sheep, I let all the thoughts whirl in my head, and all the feelings whirl in my heart and I walk.
The path takes me past lochs and over hills to the coast. I find myself walking along high cliffs at the edge of the island. I notice for the first time a sense of connection to the land, a gentle warmth in my heart but I do not pay much attention to it alongside the maelstrom of feelings. The wind blows hard in my face, the cliff edge is thrillingly close, the wild beauty holds me in my drama.
As I reach the top of the head, the thoughts and feelings get too much and I just sit and howl. I cry until I retch, spitting out snot and phlegm, retching my disgust into the emerald grass. My tears are my offering, the wind snatches them from my face. I am grateful to be alone here and I long for human company, I fear for my safety. The feelings are overwhelming, over a thousand years of power and domination, it’s too much to bear. I want it to stop with me, I want to feel it all and I am dwarfed by the enormity of it.
I do my best to surrender, to sit with what is. I come to my limit and I allow myself to stop. I get up, I keep walking. I continue down towards the lighthouse, towards Ushet Port, a small shallow bay at the tip of the island, ruins of two old buildings, black-faced, white sheep with horns.
There are supposed to be seals here, I want to see the seals, want some kind of reward or sign of redemption, a selkie to take my hand and tell me it’s all okay.
I see a dark shape poke out of the water, it could be a seal. I walk down to the rocky shore and someone sneezes. I look sharply to my left, I had thought I was alone but it’s not a human, it’s a seal, not fifteen metres away. My eyes adjust and suddenly they are everywhere, sunning themselves on the rocks. I sit down carefully, not wanting to disturb them and just watch.
Always the land does this for me. She does not fix things, she does not make it better but somehow she interrupts. She halts my human musings and worries and brings me sharply into the present. In this moment I am a woman on a rock, watching seals. Beautiful seals, dragging themselves out of the water and awkwardly rocking themselves into comfortable positions, soaking in the sunlight.
The grief is far from done but it is enough for today, just the next step, one foot in front of the other.
I head back into town, it’s really just a smattering of houses near the ferry port. I walk along the coast road as per Marina’s instructions, observing the unique construction of the drystone walls, thinking about logistics, I have no idea where Mum is right now.
I pass the old kelp house, turn the corner, walk down the road towards the Island Treasure gift shop, perhaps I’ll buy something for Mel. The door opens and an older woman in a blue raincoat steps out. It’s Mum. She looks around and catches sight of me, giving two thumbs up at the good fortune of our meeting. The local history museum is to my left and there’s Marina standing outside. I introduce the two of them and we sit down on a bench together to compare notes.
Marina sends us to the local pub to meet with Kay who was born a McCuiag on mainland Ireland. She came to Rathlin to research her family history and later decided to move here, 7 years ago. After tea and scones, Marina piles us all into her car and spends the next hour taking us around the island, pointing out each house and ruin, telling us who lived there and how the buildings were used.
Here the ancestors who lived close to the land feel close. It’s only 25 years since they have had mains electricity. Marina tells us a lot has changed in that time but the island is of great interest to conservation groups who are encouraging return to the ‘old ways.’ Marina says “Of course it’s all organic, that’s just the way we did things.”
Rathlin feels like a respite from the paradox of my existence, it holds the possibility of being welcomed in a place where there is an ancestral relationship. It is the romantic ideal I had hoped for but now that I am here I realise the real work. The biggest gift I can offer is not returning to some idealised past but feeling the full impact of what has happened in between.